Richard and Gina Donovan

A father and daughter save the upper Neches.

IN 1998, WHEN LUFKIN REALTOR Richard Donovan and his daughter, Gina, first read of plans to build as many as three dams on the Neches River, they knew this was the cause their budding environmental activism had been waiting for. The most concrete threat came from the longstanding proposal for a reservoir on the upper Neches—necessary, said planners, to meet the burgeoning thirst of Dallas and the suburbs of the Metroplex. But in a state that has already lost more than 75 percent of its hardwood bottomlands—a vital habitat for hundreds of species of plants and animals—the 255 miles of the Neches from Lake Palestine to B. A. Steinhagen Lake seemed too precious to lose. The Donovans weren’t about to see Texas’s longest contiguous wildlife corridor drown.

So they took on the City of Dallas and the seemingly unstoppable forces of progress. To bring attention to the river’s plight, Richard canoed the upper Neches—twice—and in June, Texas A&M University Press published his book about the journey, Paddling the Wild Neches. Gina, a successful realtor with the family business, relinquished her career to join the fray, taking the job of communications director for the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, the state’s affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation. Together with the grassroots organization Friends of the Neches, they worked tirelessly to promote their vision of a protected river to ranchers, civic leaders, and anyone else who would listen.

Their efforts have paid off. On June 12, swayed by the thousands of e-mails and letters he had received, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dale Hall signed an order creating the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge. This protected land may eventually conserve up to 25,281 acres and, at least for now, forestalls the building of the reservoir. As Texas’s population grows and the weather gets warmer, the water wars are long from over: Richard and Gina continue to fight for “scenic” status for the Neches under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and she is also busy taking her message of faith-based environmentalism to church congregations across the state. But some celebration seems justified. “The little guys spoke and the big guys listened,” says Gina.

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